NY Withholding Location Data on Emerging COVID-19 Strains

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. (NIH/Handout via REUTERS).

The UK and South African strains of the coronavirus have been confirmed on Long Island, but New York State and local health officials are refusing to specify where beyond which county — a lack of disclosure that some find troubling.

The Suffolk County Department of Health Services has for years publicly disclosed the town of residence for patients diagnosed with novel infectious diseases — oftentimes West Nile Virus cases — but despite repeated requests to apply the same policy to the new COVID-19 strains, agency representatives refuse to disclose such information.

“We cannot release further details due to patient privacy,” said Jill Montag, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health. “In instances where the number of cases is small, patient confidentiality prohibits the department from disclosing this information.”

There were 154 confirmed cases of the UK strain statewide, including 12 in Suffolk, as of February 23, the last date the state released data on the variant, when a second case of the South African variant was confirmed in Nassau County.

“We are referring questions about more specific hometowns within Suffolk to the state,” Grace Kelly-McGovern, public relations director for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services said when asked for the towns of the 12 patients in that county.

By citing patient privacy, the state is effectively invoking the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which is meant to keep medical information from being shared without consent. But critics say HIPAA doesn’t apply if the patient’s identity isn’t disclosed.

“HIPAA only applies to personal information, not general data,” said Dr. David Belk, an internist from California. “Providing public data showing 20,000 people in Smith County is not a HIPAA violation. As long as the medical information provided cannot be traced back to any particular person, making it public is not a HIPAA violation.”

Good government advocates also cried foul.

“I don’t see a HIPAA issue with releasing COVID numbers by town and agree that such information should be provided,” said Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition For Open Government.

Studies have shown the rick of death to be 67% higher for UK variant patients, but the vaccine has proven effective against the strain.

Part of the reason the agencies refuse to release which town the patients with the emerging strains live in is that they may be everywhere.

Kelly-McGovern said, “We believe that the UK strain is circulating throughout Suffolk County.”

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